The condemned: The VelociPastor (2019)
The plot: One of the most purely wonderful things about The VelociPastor is how much of a shit it doesn’t give about trying to explain itself. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of your stoned roommate in college, barely awake at 5 a.m. and trying to explain how totally awesome it would be if you could combine a dinosaur with a priest and have it fight evil. More specifically, it’s also that same stoned friend if he then went out and actually tried to make that movie, presumably while still incredibly high, and possibly also drunk. “Good work, friend,” you’d think to yourself, while also cringing at what the people he worked with to achieve his vision possibly had to endure. Yet, at the same time, come on: You’d immediately start bugging him to see the results of his handiwork.
Following the death of his parents (and hoo boy, more on that later), young priest Doug (Gregory James Cohan) travels to China while wondering whether he’s lost his faith in the wake of such a personal tragedy. Instead, he encounters a dying woman, who gives him what appears to be a normal fossil of a dinosaur claw (such a common gift to entrust with strangers you meet dying of arrow wounds in the forest!)—at least until he gets cut by the claw, and the next thing we know, he’s back in America, where a random encounter with a prostitute named Carol (Alyssa Kempinski) reveals the truth behind his mysterious blackouts: He’s turning into a dinosaur and murdering people. Carol convinces Doug that he can actually do more good as a bloodthirsty dino than as a priest, killing bad people who deserve it, and after some initial hesitation, Doug is fully on board, and possibly falling for Carol at the same time. Unfortunately for him, a gang of drug-dealing ninjas finds out he’s making life harder for them—and they decide to take out the half-man, half-dinosaur. I know, it’s easy to confuse this film with On Golden Pond, but you can distinguish the two with this easy trick: The VelociPastor doesn’t contain Henry Fonda’s final acting performance, and it does feature a pimp named Frankie Mermaid getting his throat ripped out in a church confessional booth.
Over-the-top box copy: Aside from the tagline—“A man of the claw”—there are no exhortations to greatness or pull quotes from rapturous reviews. However, if you flip the Blu-ray/DVD case around, you get the endorsement, “You’ll believe a PRIEST CAN TURN INTO A DINOSAUR (maybe),” from Entertainment Weekly. And if that doesn’t convince you that this is actually a movie about a priest transforming into a dino, you’ve got the following glowing praise: “Too strange even by midnight-movie standards.” Yes, this is one of those movies where a criticism of the film has been repurposed for positive ends. At least it’s probably the actual quote, and not a “comedic masterstroke” situation.
The descent: This is probably the most cut-and-dried case of eligibility for Home Video Hell imaginable. I saw there was a movie coming out called The VelociPastor. I thought, “That sounds like something the world needs to know about.” No further justification required. Honestly, I think this is one of those situations where the onus should be on the opposing point of view—anyone who doesn’t want to see what’s up with The VelociPastor should be forced to justify their reasoning. Did you receive word from a medium of the exact date and time of your death? If it’s coming in the next few weeks, I could see you making a case for not having the time to check out this movie. Beyond that, you’re all out of excuses.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Unless you count the dinosaur, there’s no living being in this production that you’ve heard of. Oh, do ninjas count? You could argue that you’ve heard of ninjas. Then again, nobody playing a ninja in this film looks like they’ve taken a beginner’s class in judo, let alone advanced studies in kicking ass, and nowhere near the expert levels of martial artistry that would be required to kick dinosaur ass, though maybe that’s a weeknights-at-the-YMCA kind of program.
The execution: If you’re anything like me, you probably took one look at the name of this movie and thought to yourself, “I don’t care if this thing cost $5 million or $5, that dinosaur better look like absolute fucking garbage.” I am pleased to report that, whatever image you had in your head of the VelociPastor, it looks way, way stupider than you could ever dream.
Lots of low-budget trash gets compared to Troma—probably because Troma famously put out almost nothing but low-budget trash—but in this case, it’s the best possible employment of that particular designation. The VelociPastor is what Troma, or any movie angling to be a Troma-style film, should be shooting for in 2019. It’s gleefully stupid, ugly as sin, hammily acted, and barely 75 minutes long. In other words, it’s everything you could want in a movie like this. A priest turns into a dinosaur and murders a pimp. The priest and his prostitute girlfriend murder ninjas in her bedroom. There’s a lengthy flashback to the Korean War (set in woods that look remarkably like China did earlier in the film, which in turn looked exactly like New Jersey), where a woman steps on a landmine and explodes in a blast of nothing but red paint. It is pure entertainment of a kind best appreciated by those with a fondness for the seams-showing pluck of no-budget hucksters, or possibly just the very, very high.
Even the small asides and dimwitted in-jokes within the film—and there are a lot—are so weirdly phrased or constructed in the manner of over-the-top Monty Python fans (the type who find something personally hilarious and so they include it, no matter how random or unjustified) that the lighthearted moments inspire as much “Wait, what?” as they do laughs. To wit: the opening title card that describes the film as “Rated X by an all-Christian jury.” Jury? Or when Doug’s parents, in a flashback, brightly inform him, “We’ll pick you up after priest college!” Just like all the kids are calling it.
That being said, the whole thing is so stupidly endearing that even moments that would otherwise get it dinged for being slapdash or incoherent end up becoming part of the charm offensive. Take, for example, the opening sequence, which begins with Doug delivering a sermon and then segues smoothly into one of the best opening motivators for plot I have ever seen. All Hollywood action films should aspire to this level of bottom-line efficiency. Did I rewind it several times upon first seeing it? I did.
Doug, who looks like John Mulaney’s lunk-headed older brother, promptly gets consolation from his mentor priest, Father Stewart (credited as “Dr. Daniel E. Steere,” and whom I correctly assumed was writer-director Brendan Steere’s father), in what amounts to the worst job of consoling a grieving child ever offered by anyone, let alone a priest. “So your parents died. That’s what parents do!” Stewart says, with all the warm comfort of a cheese grater rolling across your elbow.
The trip to China (and back again), as well as subsequent encounters with ninjas, appear to have borrowed a page from the final season of Game Of Thrones, as Doug travels to and from foreign lands in roughly the course of an afternoon. Better still, once the gang of drug-dealing ninjas arrives on the scene, they seem to set up camp just outside of town—and “town,” in this instance, is whatever unnamed burg Doug and Carol live in (the movie was apparently shot in Manhattan, but looks remarkably like small-town Crapheap, USA)—and transitions between locations for the characters are as simple as a cut or fade-out. It’s basically like having a Star Trek transporter! The commitment to verisimilitude is profound—almost as realistic as the Korean War soldiers in Father Stewart’s flashback, who are wearing what must be regulation black-and-white sneakers.
But so much of what makes The VelociPastor fun is the fuck-it sense of joy the movie takes in its montages. There’s nothing the film does that it doesn’t try to economize into as few shots as possible, with the possible exception of giving the villains long, inexplicable, Dr. Evil-style cackling. But oh, the montages. Each one is packed with scenes that a lesser movie would’ve attempted to insert into the actual story, or justify, or done anything besides dispense with it in a flagrant display of knowing when to gracefully edit. Here’s the first montage of Carol and Doug learning how to harness his powers, while simultaneously falling in love. You can almost smell the romance.
Similarly, the bad acting is of the intentionally-bad kind, but not in an annoying way, which is rare for this kind of film. There’s a pimp named Freddie Mermaid who’s obnoxiously unpleasant, but he bites it early on (thanks to the VelociPastor), and everyone else is enjoyably earnest to watch, from the low-budget in-joke of having the producer/family member given a role regardless of acting ability (Steere’s father, as “Father Stewart”) to the ninjas tasked with laughing long past when they should have stopped. The VelociPastor himself, Gregory Cohan, leads the way; he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in, and his vacuous solemnity is a perfect fit. Here he is delivering a line in which he appears to forget that he’s supposed to end the sentence on the words “Father Stewart,” so he quickly tosses them in after an awkward pause. It’s one of my favorite moments in the entire film.
There are also multiple action scenes that contain the right combination of deeply clunky choreography and self-serious “ass-kicking” moments, both for Doug and Carol. Sometimes, they’re even together for the excitement, as in the following clip, where ninjas jump through the window to challenge our heroes. They’re all dispatched quickly—so quickly, in fact, that there’s a delightful line of ADR immediately following this scene where Doug says, “Good thing that ninja told us where the hideout was before he died,” which the ninja definitely did not do.
Ultimately, though, there’s one reason we’re all here, and that’s to watch a priest turn into a dinosaur. Aside from a few sequences earlier in the film where we see a variety of dino body parts (usually only fleetingly), the finale delivers the goods on what the audience has been waiting all movie long to see, and it doesn’t disappoint. There may be a more ridiculous looking dinosaur on celluloid, but I haven’t seen it, and that includes the ones from Lost Continent. I’m almost envious of the film’s commitment to making its star attraction look like crap—it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to make a dinosaur costume so bad-looking that you don’t bother to close up the hole in the bottom where the person inside clambers in and out. That’s true artistry.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: This movie is going to endure. It’s got a killer hook, is fun to watch, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It has “cult classic” written all over it.
Damnable commentary track of special features? There’s an eight-minute-long “gag reel” that’s more just a series of filmed moments of the cast and crew fucking around, the kind of “you probably had to be there” type of outtakes that aren’t worth it. There’s also a pair of rambling live Q&As from early screenings which are hit or miss, but the actual commentary track itself really isn’t worth it. Director Brendan Steere is joined by star Cohan and producer-cinematographer Jesse Gouldsbury, the latter of whom finds himself very funny, always the kiss of death for discussions like this. Still, Gouldsbury also gets in the most accurate summation of no-budget filmmaking when he says, early on, “Remember how we filmed this entire scene, and then, after lunch, we went back and shot it again? Because… we hated it?”